Frame Work: Ashim Ahluwalia’s New Short Film Is A Sketch Of Artist Akbar Padamsee
A tiny triangle of Bombay with vertices at Breach Candy, Nepean Sea Road and Kemps Corner was the site of exciting artistic experimentation at various moments from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s. The Bhulabhai Desai Institute in Breach Candy, where the high-rise Akash Ganga now stands, was a confluence of theatre, art and dance from 1946 until the late ’60s. Artists such as M. F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Prafulla Dahanukar and Vasudeo Gaitonde had studios in the one-storey bungalow; Ebrahim Alkazi staged theatre on the terrace; and Ravi Shankar ran a music school. Alkazi also performed plays on the terrace of Vithal Court on Kemps Corner where he lived. From 1969 to 1972, Padamsee ran the Vision Exchange Workshop or VIEW at his apartment in Taher Mansion on Nepean Sea Road, now a nondescript, grey building with an ever-changing front of ground-floor shops.
Few people who are not historians of the city or of Padamsee’s vintage – he’s 88 – will know of VIEW. Director Ashim Ahluwalia (whose credits include the documentary John and Jane and the feature film Miss Lovely) has ferreted out this piece of history and made a film titled Events in a Cloud Chamber, which is currently being shown at Jhaveri Contemporary. The 20-minute film, made in collaboration with Padamsee, gives viewers a sense of the sort of work the artist produced at VIEW. The title refers to a film Padamsee had made in 1969 and was subsequently lost.
Padamsee established VIEW with funds he received as part of the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 1969. After unsuccessfully starting the project in the neighbourhood of Bhogal in Delhi, in a flat procured with the help of artist Krishen Khanna’s father, he moved it to Bombay. Over three years, artists such as Nalini Malani and Gieve Patel, filmmakers Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul and psychoanalyst Udayan Patel experimented with art and cinema at the Nepean Sea Road workshop, making use of Padamsee’s three 16mm cameras and projector. It was here that Kaul edited his 1973 movie Duvidha starring Padamsee’s daughter Raisa. The workshop ended after funds from the fellowship ran out, Padamsee told this writer in an earlier interview.
Ahluwalia’s film, which is shot on celluloid, has a grainy, vintage texture lending it the sense of enigma exuded by an artefact whose origins are only partially known. It opens with footage of kids playing in park. (The curatorial note tells us the footage is from home movies shot by Ahluwalia’s grandfather.) In a voiceover, Padamsee recalls moments from his childhood such as drawing in his father’s accounts books, his meeting with French writer Andre Breton and showing his first film Syzygy (1969) to an audience. The 11-minute Syzygy is a series of animations of lines, letters and numbers arranging themselves in various permutations. Jean Bhownagary, the former director of the Films Division, joked that audience members ought to pop an Aspirin before watching Syzygy, Padamsee recalls.
Dispirited by the unenthusiastic response to his filmmaking experiments, Padamsee abandoned the camera after Events in a Clouds Chamber. In the original, he had used stencil drawings, filters and his camera to conjure an image of a ‘metascape’, which is what he calls his series of landscapes. Ahluwalia’s film succeeds in opening a brief yet tantalising window into an avant garde moment in the city’s artistic history and in sketching in broad strokes a portrait of Padamsee. There’s footage of the artist as a younger man painting and pottering about his kitchen. His version of Events wraps up with a shot of Padamsee as he is today, frail, reclining in bed. It’s a moving coda that evokes the idea of the evanescence of human life and endeavour. With this film, VIEW, which was practically forgotten, will be remembered long after Padamsee.
Events, the film, is the centrepiece of a larger show of the same name, which is designed to simulate a 1960s study. Arrangements of retro furniture give the show the appearance of a workplace. Syzygy is screened on loop on an old TV set and on display are reproductions of letters exchanged between people involved in VIEW, old magazine interviews of Padamsee and the artist’s drawings that laid the groundwork for his two films.
Events in a Cloud Chamber will run until Saturday, December 24 at Jhaveri Contemporary, 2, Krishna Niwas, 58A Walkeshwar Road. Tel: 022 2369 3639. Open Tuesday to Saturday, from 11am to 6pm; Sunday and Monday, closed. The film ‘Events in a Cloud Chamber’ will be screened on the hour. Get directions here.